New London Architecture

Building a More Inclusive Built Environment

Monday 24 June 2024

Dipa Joshi


Dipa Joshi summarises the latest NLA Charette session on the Value Diversity pillar of the New London Agenda, bringing together representatives from 15 NLA Expert Panels and Committees.

This session focused on the Value Diversity pillar of the New London Agenda and brought together a gathering of interested representatives from the 15 NLA Expert Panels and Committees. The agenda for the session was for groups to identify the cultural, policy and financial barriers to valuing diversity in the represented sectors of the built environment and come up with tools and levers that enable diversity to have greater value.

I began with a provocation entitled “Embracing London's Diversity: Inspiring Examples” highlighting five areas of best practice and asking: What does good look like? Where can we demonstrate positive outcomes of a more equitable, sustainable and prosperous city? What are we aiming for?

London's vibrant tapestry is its greatest asset - how to support and reflect its diverse needs:
  1. Educational Equity: Educational institutions that nurture minds to embrace diversity and celebrate their unique heritages as championed by role models such as RIBA Royal Gold Medal winner Lesley Lokko, who has dedicated her career to the decolonization and decarbonisation of architectural education.
  2. Diverse Built Environment Workforce: Construction companies that actively recruit and train a workforce that mirrors London's demographics. Positive action has positive outcomes of increased innovation, improved understanding of diverse communities’ needs, and a more inclusive built environment.
  3. Community-Led Regeneration: Grassroots initiatives driven by residents from different backgrounds shaping the future of their neighbourhoods.`For example, ‘Come In Love/Stay In Peace’ Brixton railway bridge art piece by the Resolve Collective acts as a potent reminder of Brixton as more than an area, but a community.
  4. Culturally Responsive Public Spaces: Public realm designed to cater to a variety of cultural needs, fostering a sense of belonging and ownership for diverse communities, encouraging social interaction, and reducing isolation. For example, Superkilen in Copenhagen, designed by arts collective Superflex, is an inclusive park ideal for teenage girls through its inclusive design.
  5. More Quality Social Housing: Studies show that people from diverse or challenged socioeconomic backgrounds suffer the most from London's housing crisis. Sustainable, high quality social housing such as Goldsmith Street, designed by Mikhail Riches, the only social-housing scheme to have won the Stirling Prize, is a perfect example.

London's built environment, while constantly evolving, struggles to reflect the rich cultural tapestry of its residents. A lack of diversity within the sector itself hinders progress. The group explored the cultural, policy, and financial barriers to achieving a more inclusive built environment and proposed solutions to create a welcoming space for everyone.

Cultural Challenges:

Schools often lack proper career guidance, failing to expose students from diverse backgrounds to the exciting possibilities within the built environment. Traditional societal views paint construction as "blue-collar" work, dissuading some demographics. Additionally, the post-Brexit environment makes attracting international talent more challenging.

The industry itself can be unwelcoming. Limited entry points, a lack of diverse representation within companies, and an environment where openness about identity is discouraged, create a barrier for potential applicants. Furthermore, cultural aspects of design are often overlooked, and public consultations feel like mere formalities, leading to a sense of imposed development plans.

Policy Shortcomings:

Policy frameworks also present obstacles. Restrictive visa policies hinder access for skilled international professionals. The current lack of diversity metrics makes it difficult to track progress towards a more inclusive sector, bearing in mind that in the next few years, more than 50% of Londoners will be non-white. Additionally, professional accreditation requirements can disadvantage foreign architects, and political agendas can sometimes overshadow diversity initiatives. Slow planning processes discourage diverse participation, while the "Right to Buy" policy poses challenges in maintaining readily available social housing.

Financial Hurdles:

Financial barriers further restrict entry into the built environment. The sector suffers from low salaries and a perceived undervaluing of technical skills. University debt, coupled with limited scholarship opportunities, creates a financial burden for aspiring professionals. Furthermore, gender pay gaps discourage women from pursuing higher-paying roles within the sector. Projects themselves prioritise viability over public good, limiting the creation of valuable cultural spaces. On housing, mortgage lenders need to offer more flexibility for models like shared ownership.

Building a More Diverse Future:

The path towards a more inclusive built environment requires a multifaceted approach.

  • Education and Awareness: Role models showcasing diverse roles, revamped career guidance in schools, and scholarships can spark early interest.
  • Addressing Financial Barriers: Advocating for reduced student loan interest rates or scholarships specifically for the built environment sector can make education more accessible.
  • Policy and Practice: Mandating better community engagement throughout the planning process, including social value in viability reports, promoting flexible work arrangements for women in architecture firms, and focusing on high-quality technical roles are crucial steps.

Collaboration is Key:

Encouraging collaboration between professionals from diverse backgrounds during training and practice fosters a more inclusive work environment. Firms can diversify their leadership teams and hiring practices, actively seeking talent from diverse pools and supporting their progress. Finally, prioritising inclusive design principles and diverse perspectives during regeneration projects ensures that new developments reflect the communities they serve.

Tools and Levers for Change:

Community partnerships for public spaces, promoting practical skills and accessibility in education, and developing user-friendly digital tools for community participation can all contribute to a more inclusive sector.

Learning from Best Practice:

Success can be achieved through applying practical tools, for example, learning from successful initiatives such as student-led planning projects, ensuring accessibility through features like TfL’s women's safety audits. Community engagement can be enhanced by partnering with residents on public space projects, using readily available materials in design, and developing digital tools for accessible community participation.

Programmes like blind recruitment and partnerships with organisations like Teach First promote inclusivity in talent pipelines. Initiatives like the National Saturday Club and AIA's Architecture in Schools programme spark early interest in the built environment among young people. Additionally, successful projects like Germany's Hamburg Hafencity development demonstrate the effective planned integration of affordable housing within mixed-use spaces.

Diversity is a fact, inclusivity is an act - by implementing proactive solutions and learning from best practices, we can create a thriving built environment sector that reflects the rich diversity of London itself. A more inclusive industry will not only unlock fresh perspectives and talent but also ensure that the city's built environment serves the needs of all its residents.

Dipa Joshi


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